Innovation Starts Here

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all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

Innovation begins with insight, not advice.

It begins with curiosity and an open pair of eyes. Or ears. Or hands. Or a few thousand taste buds.

At its core, it begins with people with a talent for both observation and creative problem-solving. These people aren't "inventors". They aren't necessarily scientists in white lab coats testing gadgets all day. They probably aren't PhD's or MBA's. They aren't likely to be tenured executives. They could be anybody. A cashier. A janitor. An art student. A factory worker. A chef. A dish-washer. A police detective. They are simply people with a specific talent. Something they were born with. Whomever they are, when you meet one, you know right away that you've uncovered something special.

No matter what anyone tries to tell you, innovation can't be taught in a classroom. It isn't something you can get a degree in. It doesn't work that way.

Conversely, innovation doesn't just happen.

That's why "asses in seats" as a hiring practice, as an HR mandate, doesn't cut it anymore.

The resumes, the CV's, the diplomas, they have very little to do with one's ability to hand a company its next ten years at the top of the heap. Its next evolutionary leap or two. The next exciting chapter in its epic business adventure.

Innovators, whether they specialize in identity crafting, product design, specific technology or the arts don't exactly grow on trees.

Think about Food. Warfare. Fashion. Web design. Social Programs. Photography. Genetics. Philosophy.

Think Julius Caesar. Think Steve Jobs. Think Fats Domino.

Think the team that developed the mp3 format.

Think the farmer or merchant who designed the first wheel.

Think Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie.

Innovation always changes the world. Even the slightest hint of it.


Innovation leads to evolution leads to growth leads to the future. Innovation is the key to any business' success. Continued innovation is the key to any business' longevity.

Imagine Microsoft without innovation. Sony. Canon. BMW. T&S Brass. Krispy Kreme. HBO. Trek bikes. Nike. Oakley. Fitleist.

The most important thing you have to know about innovation is that it all starts with the right people. Not asses in seats, but talented, gifted people with a particular skill: With an ability to see the world like very few other people can. It starts with individuals literally worth their weight in gold.

But having people like this on your payroll isn't enough. You have to empower them. You have to let them out into the world. You have to get them in front of your customers. You have to let them walk around your stores. Your factories. Your customer service call centers. You have to send them to your competitors' backyards. You have to let them loose. Give them a camera. Give them a notepad. Give them a plastic baggie.

Give them five minutes inside a store, and they'll figure out five things that will boost its sales by ten percent inside of a week.

And that isn't even about innovation. We're still stuck on simple observation and insight, at this point. This is just a warmup. An appetizer. A taste of amazing things to come.

These people, these innovators, they are your contextual interpreters. They are the only people in the entire world who can translate your customers' needs into the next big idea.

Your next big idea.

They are the people who know how to turn your customers into rabid brand advocates after spending ten minutes with them.

The truth about communicating with your customers is that it's harder to do than you think. Focus groups are too limiting. Field testing comes way too late in the game. Customer service is too busy responding to complaints to effectively put them in context for you.

To understand what your customers need, you need an intermediary to intuitively make sense of what they have to say. You need people who can be anthropologists and data analysts and artists and creative thinkers all at once. You need people who can turn a need into an idea, an idea into a concept, a concept into a design, a design into a product, a product into a success, a success into a cultural phenomenon.

Apple's customers didn't ask for the iPod. Moviegoers didn't ask for 'Titanic' or 'Gladiator' or 'The Matrix'. They didn't ask for WOMM.

They asked to be free of bulky CD players. They asked for "blow-us-away" entertainment. They asked for truth in Marketing.

Without these interpreters, these innovators, your business will never be more than what it is today. It doesn't matter how many big clients you land, how many customers you sell to, how much money you spend on advertising. It doesn't matter how many MBA's you hire. For your company to be relevant, for your identity to be worth anything, you need to constantly outdo yourself in the eyes of your customers:

Every year, Versace designs new collections. Apple releases new cool technology. New Balance creates lighter running shoes. Seth Godin publishes a new book. Trek designs a faster bike.

Innovation drives business.

Conversely, McDonalds stays the same. Home Depot stays the same. TV sitcoms stay the same.

Stagnation leads nowhere.

Think 6% annual growth. Think price pressures from imports. Think customer apathy.

This week, fellow brand strategist Jennifer Rice (What's Your Brand Mantra) makes some very valid observations about the role of innovation in business:

- Brands that aren't in touch with their customers miss out on small but critical innovation opportunities.

- Brands that seek customer insight only along predetermined lines of thinking (like taste tests) can easily miss out on the real opportunities.


In her piece, Jennifer also quotes an Ad Age post in which the author erroneously muses:

"Companies spend billions on market research to divine the needs and wants of consumers and businesses. Yet the new-product failure rate remains high. And we're not coming up with better product concepts by listening to the voice of the customer. Why? Maybe the customer isn't worth listening to."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong x infinity. Your customers are worth listening to. The problem is that...

1) You're just not putting the right people in front of them.
2) You don't understand the relationship you have with your customers.
3) This isn't about divination. It's about dialogue.
4) That dialogue has to be about more than just going through the motions. (Hey, we've spent millions on this. It should be working, no?)
5) Remember that thing Jennifer mentioned about predetermined lines of thinking? Read it again.

Don't mistake customer involvement with design by committee.

Jennifer comes to the rescue with an astute piece of advice:

"My personal philosophy on customer involvement is this: Find out what they want. Then figure out how to deliver it. Customers should be involved in need identification... or as John puts it, they should serve as the inspiration. But it's the company's job to figure out the best, most cost-effective solution to that need."

"Find out what they want. Then figure out how to deliver it."


Without the right people taking care of this for you, you'll waste years and a ton of money chasing your tails, with very little to show for it.

Seriously. Hire talent. Hire insight. Hire those drivers of innovation. If you can't find any, hire companies that make a point of keeping folks like this on staff so you don't have to.

Think IDEO.

Think FROG Design.

Whether you hire an individual or a team, let them become a part of who you are. Give them the tools and the means and the authority to work their magic. That's it. Really. I'm not kidding. They'll take care of the rest for you.

Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can afford to keep going without this vital piece of the business puzzle. You can't. You'll either see snail-slow growth, or you will see your company crash and burn before its time.

That kind of talent doesn't grow on trees. Seek it out. Make it yours. Don't ever make the mistake of letting it pass you by.

Your competitor won't.

4 Responses to “Innovation Starts Here”

  1. Anonymous Anonymous 

    Great post. Very motivational. I really like the idea of contextual interpreters. That's such a powerful concept. And, I'd like to submit that not only are they useful developing ideas from customer to company, but also in translating company ideas to the customers. It goes two ways. You may have the best new idea in the world - even generated by your customers - but if it doesn't resonate, if you don't give it back in a way that matters, will anyone care?

    But, this is powerful stuff. Innovation drives business. No arguments here.

  2. Blogger Olivier Blanchard 

    You're so right about the interpreters working in both directions. Excellent observation. :)

  3. Blogger Olivier Blanchard 

    Oh, and check this out!


  4. Anonymous Anonymous 

    Wonderful post, Inspiring, motivating.
    I agree on the idea of the dialogue with customers: innovation, in my opinion, is not simply about mixing features and technologies; nor it is about mining the data about your consumer. It is about sensemaking: companies and consumers must make sense of their environment and most of all of the future. That is how deliver to the consumers what they really want: not just products but shared interpretations of the world.

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